Jacquard's mechanical additions to the handloom gave rise to new, concrete media and sensory-specific effects that reflected changing stages in perception at the eve of the 18th century and the cusp of the 19th. The mechanized mediation of the self is also reflected through the fruit of this mechanized loom, where instead of two or three human operators, it reduced human agency down to one operator per machine, reducing the time and human presence necessary to complete the same quantity and quality of weaving. The diminishing of human agency and the increase of mechanized forms of labor paralleled the dismantling of the 18th century conception of the 'human sensorium', only to find that the mechanical jacquard loom devoured this mode of sensory mediation to reveal a new one: weaving as a mediatic skin interface. The mechanized weave altered the skeleton and structure of the woven product, setting it apart from its hand woven precursors by introducing the weave as a threaded matrix as opposed to a solid piece of block colors. The woven skin-as-interface captured both the rise of the physiological division of sensory faculties in the 19th century, and the violent erasure of human agency in the craft and production of mechanized weaving, channeling the idea that McLuhan first introduced that media are ever extensions of ourselves (McLuhan, 7).
Joseph-Marie Jacquard and His Weaving Automaton
In 1801, Joseph-Marie Jacquard exhibited a machine that mechanized the labor of weaving colored patterns in textiles. Promptly in 1806, France claimed it as property of the state and it soon afterward became the primary method of commercial weaving.
Joseph-Marie Jacquard came up with the idea of putting a pattern into holes on a card to produce a fabric design mechanically. He housed this punch card system in his mechanized loom, and produced a two-part machine consisting of the loom and the Jacquard frame, often just called the 'Jacquard'. The loom stood fastened to the floor, with the Jacquard frame suspended from the ceiling, resting on heavy beams. The loom incorporated the punch cards lined in order with each punch card pertaining to a row on the tapestry design, and a lifting mechanism, which the weaver himself operated with a treadle, eradicating the need for a draw boy or an assistant to orchestrate the shedding action. The Jacquard was responsible for housing the shedding mechanism away from the loom itself, and consisted of a series of vertical hooks from the bottom of which drew the harness cords together to operate them, connecting the loom and Jacquard together in mechanistic synchronicity. The weaving action in both hand and mechanized looms utilized the warp and weft threads as coordinates. The warp threads ran parallel to the length of the weave, and the weft threads ran parallel to the width of the weave. The Jacquard performed the shedding mechanism by lifting each individual warp thread independently of the others, and reading the perforated cards. Each perforation corresponded to a single warp thread, and each weft was interlaced either over or under the warp threads depending on the presence or absence of a perforated hole. It was noted that unlike traditional hand weaving, the weft threads covered the entire span of the tapestry, so that the image was “composed of a matrix of warp and weft” (Stone, 1). The loom could be 'programmed', and patterns could be modified or switched by rearranging or replacing the card deck, creating a feedback loop between weaver, cards and loom (Keats, 88). The Jacquard cards provided a selecting medium for pattern-weaving that was applicable to both hand and power looms, and while the loom mechanism did eliminate the need for extra hands to be present and man the machine, it required a whole new level of pre-production and design planning to create the cards that would correspond to the desired pattern. At the time, there were perhaps fewer "[types] of mechanism where more accuracy was required than in the various machines which are employed for the preparation of Jacquard cards for the loom” (Woodhouse, 1), whether they be human or mechanical in nature.
Weave as Skin Interface
“Adam and Eve were undoubtedly our first customers for textiles. The moment they discarded their fig leaf, there was created an immediate market for textile garments” -The Loom Has a Brain, Herman Blum.
Nakedness requires an acknowledgment of discarded shields or skins, to cover the original skin. Textiles, in both in their artificial mimesis of skin as well as the necessary negation of skin in the act of covering it, provide an interesting point of reflection in which the body itself is mediated as a site of both visuality and touch. The further the mechanized process goes to cover the originary skin, the greater the art of deception, and correspondingly, the violence of inscription. As seen in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of 'skin', it is both "the natural external covering or integument of an animal removed from the body" and "the substance, esp. as a material for clothing"; this skin can also be "dressed and prepared as a surface for writing" (OED, "skin"). The weave coming out of the Jacquard loom tells a story about the medium much in the same way that "blueprints and diagrams, regardless of whether they control printing presses or mainframe computers, may yield historical traces of the unknown called the body" (Kittler, xl). The weave as a skin product here extends strongly beyond commerce or function, but carry what “remains of people… what media can store and communicate. What counts are not the messages or the content with which they equip so-called souls for the duration of a technological era, but rather… their circuits, the very schematism of perceptibility” (Kittler, xl-xli). In search of the traces of a missing body, then, one may find in the inscriptions of the mechanized matrix of warp and weft the lingering remains of a skin interface.
The associative trend for explaining the importance of the Jacquard loom in media history has been to relate it to early computer history, as seen in various accounts of various inventors remediated the Jacquard loom punch card in order to conceive of computational devices such as Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine and the Hollerith Punch Card. To flip the focus here, the loom may be viewed as a manifestation of a computer-based concept, the interface. Interfaces have multiple dimensions, and they "are the means through which we take clues and signals in a given culture. Learning new interface systems changes our behavior” (Flanagan, 306). The Jacquard loom set up an interface of mechanical and symbolically potent significance in the mediation of weaving: through the mechanization of hand-weaving, it changed the way the weave itself was fabricated, even if the way we perceive it as a whole appears unruptured. The weave produced by the Jacquard loom is likened to both a matrix and an epidermis, a skin interface “to describe an underlying topology of the self” (Flanagan, 312). This synthetic epidermis produces a weave of colors like skin pigmentation in its complexity. The texture is much like scar tissue, and indeed, the Jacquard punch cards are riddled with puncture holes, which must be sutured with thread much like bodily fiber and sinew to close the wound—the violence of the human agent, wiped out.
The human operator mechanism is reduced to one, and in its stead the loom spits out a mechanized weave, a skin to recall those eliminated. Through this assimilative act, the art of weaving itself changes in its sensory manifestation as well. The act of weaving on handlooms typically translated the original design through a process that resembled paint-by-numbers, in which "the cartoon is divided into regions, each of which is assigned a solid color based on a standard palette" (Stone, 2). Jacquard weaving differs in that the "repeating series of multicolored warp and weft threads can be used to create colors that are optically blended" (2). The eye apprehended the threads' combination of colors as a single color, which is a method that has been likened to pointillism. Pointillism itself originated from the discoveries madeby Eugène Chevreul a French chemist working at the time for Les Gobelins tapestry works in Paris. Chevreul, who was responsible also for developing the color wheel of primary and intermediary hues, noticed from his work at Les Gobelins that the perceived color of a particular thread was influenced by its surrounding threads, a phenomenon he called 'simultaneous contrast'" (2). The effect of constructing the tapestry with the weft threads spanning the entire width of the piece, the image composed is a pointillist matrix of warp and weft interlaced so that the colors that comprise the image no longer are contained but are interspersed to give the illusion of a solid block of color. The gradients of the piece created a pigmented, interwoven image instead of the categorical division of colors, and channeled a complicated texture of reality not unlike the surface texture and pigmentation of human skin itself. The texture of the weave itself undergoes a change; the visual illusion of ‘seamless’ imagery made in a reality of a concentrated matrix of pointillist coordinates. That something so aesthetically pleasing as a whole may look so grotesque up-close reveals the telling nature of the mechanized weave as uncanny product that causes one to distrust the senses, the danger always being that our mediatic systems may produce an “interface effect, to the point where people take leave of their senses” (Kittler, 2).
The mechanized weave manifested itself first, then its observer, after. With its appearance, the jacquard loom fulfilled the priming action to prepare history for a new kind of sensory mediation where “these sense perceptions had to be fabricated first” (Kittler, 3). What happened with the Jacquard loom was a simultaneous separation of tasks, in which the weaver moves from the immediate interaction of creating the tapestry only to relegate the tasks to the machine itself, as well as a separation of the senses which divorces touch as a holistic informant of the 18th century 'unified human sensorium' from vision (Crary, 60). The chorus of hands was reduced to one pair; human touch reduced, yet the weaving continued. The touch of hands used to mediate an understanding, or as the Oxford English Dictionary terms it, “To put the hand or finger, or some other part of the body, upon, or into contact with (something) so as to feel it; ‘to exercise the sense of feeling upon’”, “to bring (two things) into mutual contact to examine by touch or feeling” and “to bring by touching into some condition” (OED, “touch”). The knowledge of making one’s way around the world through tactile skill was overcome by mechanized performance, shifting sensory mediations from touch to sight.
Touch itself was shunted out of critical thought from the decline of the 18th century into the rise of the 19th, which focused on the visual with the rising occupation with physiology. Jonathan Crary argues that the sense of touch, integral in the classical theories of vision in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gives way to a "subsequent dissociation of touch from sight", a "pervasive ‘separation of the senses’ and industrial remapping of the body in the nineteenth century" (Crary, 19). The product of the loom, as if to foreshadow the division of such perceptual thought, produced a tapestry made not of concrete components for an image-as-whole, but a latticed, sinuous weave that rejected the 18th century perception of vision and the senses as blocks categorically placed to create a holistic and cohesive whole in favor of a matrix or grid that threaded discrete and independent coordinates into a woven product (Crary, 60). Bell’s account of Jacquard weaving and design works simultaneously with this shift in sensory attention by observing all the ways in which shade, lighting, and Chevreul’s concept of simultaneous contrast may bring about the greatest effect for “showing up the pattern on the damask”, where “it is the business of the designer to regulate what form it is to partake of” (Bell, 4-5). The product here is meant primarily now for a vision severed from the human sensorium that works parallel reflexivity with the woven matrix. Crary notes that the "loss of touch as a conceptual component of vision meant the unloosening of the eye from the network of referentiality incarnated in tactility and its subjective relation to perceived space” (19). The human touch loses sense of itself and surrenders it to the Jacquard loom: "[It] is uncanny in its precision. In its coordinated movements, it appears to have the selective powers of the human brain and the dexterity of living fingers” (Blum, 34). The human operative power over the Jacquard loom seems to merely be the supervision of sight to confirm the design and the operation work in tandem; the human weaver here is merely an eye.
The introduction of the jacquard loom thus symbolizes the violent erasure of two agents—the human operator, and a movement in history. The "orderly accumulation and cross-referencing of perceptions on a plane independent of the viewer" (Crary, 59) contained the senses in a manifest, discrete network of 'reciprocal assistance' (60), an eighteenth-century thought that "could know nothing of the ideas of pure visibility to arise in the nineteenth century” (59). Instead of allowing such a sensually logical system to 'transcend its mere physical mode of functioning' (60), the Jacquard loom pointed to the human inadequacy to perceive and supervise all aspects of the loom's mechanisms at once. The woven product in turn, this matrix of warp and weft threads, pointed to the surpassing of the 18th century concept of an ‘overriding of the immediate subjective evidence of the body’ (60) in favor of the unexpected, the material resemblance to a skin interface to channel in the 19th century’s specific visuality-as-physiology. Once the perceived whole was eliminated, the complete sensorium dismantled from the human, and what was left was the metonymic operator. Where did the missing pieces of human sensory agency go? The 19th century moves towards the “fabrication of so-called Man became possible. His essence escapes into apparatuses. Machines take over functions of the central nervous system, and no longer, as in times past, merely those of muscles” (Kittler, 16). The jacquard loom assumed some of the human tasks and produced in its place the missing skin that spoke for the eliminated sense of touch, a replacement for the fractured human sensorium.
Bell, T.F. Jacquard Weaving and Designing. UK: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895.
Blum, Herman. The Loom Has a Brain: The Story of the Jacquard Weaver’s Art. PA: Craftex Mills, Inc., 1958.
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Flanagan, Mary. Reskinning the Everyday. Ed. Flanagan and Booth. re:skin. MA: MIT Press, 2006.
Keats, Jonathan. “Origins: The Mechanical Loom”. Scientific America, No. 301, Issue 3, 2009. Pg. 88.
Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.
"Skin." Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Online. <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/>
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Woodhouse, Thomas. Jacquards and Harnesses. MacMillan and Co., 1923.